12/28/2018 9:30 am
As she begins her fourth year as an associate professor of physics at Rockford, Dr. Deepshikha Shukla is inspiring students — both college and otherwise — to discover the possibilities the world of science has to offer. Her passion for teaching has propelled her to look beyond the walls of the university to reach younger Rockford-area students who may never have given science a second thought. And while Dr. Shukla has been here a relatively short time, her dedication and outreach efforts are a testament to Rockford’s rich history in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) with names like Anna Peck Sill, Jessie Spafford, A. Frances Johnson, John Schumaker, Alan Hutchcroft, Mary Jeffreson, and G. Lawrence Forman; some of the notable science and mathematics professors who preceded her.
Dr. Shukla’s enthusiasm for physics is contagious and she is inspiring students to think differently, all while providing learning opportunities that are applicable to their lives. “By putting concepts into perspectives that will help them later in their career, students have a better opportunity to grasp complex concepts,” Dr. Shukla said.
For Dr. Shukla it’s all about “experiencing physics.” She cites a recent example of one of her students who has a goal of becoming a high school physics teacher. The assignment she gave him? Create experiments using a smartphone sensor. “We know that for the most part, high school science departments are lacking in current equipment,” Dr. Shukla said. “But we all have smartphones. And smartphones have sensors that can do a lot of physics experiments. By giving him an assignment based on a perspective that was meaningful to him, he was able to learn practical applications that will help him later in his career.”
Senior Juliana Theodorakis has found new passions in areas she never imagined would be part of her academic experiences. Although a Spanish major, a physics class with Dr. Shukla has turned into numerous exciting opportunities for Juliana who has a real knack for coding. Juliana uses a wheel chair and has taken some of her personal experiences and interests to create online courses that are accessible to students with various disabilities. Her work is impressive and caught the attention at the 2018 Sigma Xi Annual Meeting and Student Research Conference held in San Francisco, California this past October.
Sigma Xi is an Honor Society for scientific research. Approximately 125 high school, undergraduate, and graduate students competed in a research poster presentation competition at the conference, which was held in conjunction with the Sigma Xi Annual Meeting. According to Sigma Xi’s website, members, who were elected to membership because of their research accomplishments, served as judges and evaluated each student’s presentation. Judges evaluated whether the student clearly stated a hypothesis and the significance of his or her research as well as goals and objectives. Judges also assessed a student’s use of the scientific method and ability to answer questions.
Juliana attended the conference with Dr. Shukla and had the opportunity to present her research where she won the award for the best poster in her category of Physics and Astronomy. Juliana devised an experiment to measure the rotational inertia (a measure of how hard it is to turn/rotate) of her wheelchair as it should be an important consideration for wheelchair design. Manual wheelchair users can suffer from shoulder and back problems if the wheelchairs are difficult to maneuver. Her recognition included a medal, monetary award, and a year of free membership dues in Sigma Xi.
Juliana’s growing confidence to take on research projects and her resulting successes are proof of the simple premise Dr. Shukla practices, “Again, if I can find a perspective that matters to the student, the student will most likely grasp concepts more readily and be excited about it.”
And interest is growing. Enrollment is rising as the program becomes more relevant and students are sticking with it. Currently there are three declared physics minors, two of whom would like to major in physics. Offering physics as a major is something Dr. Shukla would like to see as well. “As interest grows, we definitely need to look at adding the physics major back into the RU offerings,” she said.
Dr. Shukla is also going outside the University to get younger students interested in not only science, but the entire college experience. As a relative newcomer she wasn’t sure where to begin so she turned to fellow professor, Mary Weaks-Baxter, Andrew H. Sherratt College Professor and Professor of English, who oversees community-based learning projects.
So far, Dr. Shukla, with help from several colleagues, has developed programs at Washington Park Community Center, Carlson Elementary School, and with Spectrum School, which recently moved to a location near the University. At Washington Park Community Center, Shukla reached out to Director Nicki Lynch and discovered that all of their after-school programs were geared towards sports. “There is a severe need for STEM-based activities so kids can get exposure to these fields,” Shukla said.
Most of the programs were held at Washington, Carlson or Spectrum and twice, students came on campus for an English and STEM Workshop held last fall, and the RU STEM and Savvy Skills Workshop held last spring. “The workshop was not just about physics, it was a program designed to help the participants develop critical thinking skills and give them an overall holistic experience,” Shukla said.
“The idea is to make kids excited about learning,” Shukla said. “Yes, we can go and give them workshops at their school or community center, but for them to come to a higher-ed environment and see what college is like, it makes it more real for them.”
In fact, Dr. Shukla is currently envisioning a program connecting Rockford students with schools like Spectrum with curriculum that would benefit both groups of students. “So many of our students eventually want to teach, and I think a program connecting our students with the elementary students would provide amazing learning opportunities,” Shukla said. It’s just one of the many ideas Shukla has as she thinks of ways to make Physics engaging and fun for everyone.
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